A changing Japan

A sight of traditional Japan (courtesy: Michael Banks)

It’s been five years since my last trip to Japan and I can’t help but see how the country has changed in that time.

I starting writing this blog in a coffee shop in central Tokyo while having a cappuccino and eating a pastry. Indeed, during my week in Japan I felt the country westernise at a pace much faster than envisaged. English is becoming more prevalent and coffee/sweet shops are proliferating, I wonder what they will do for Japanese waistlines.

There is also a force for change in academia, with Japan attempting to attract and accommodate foreign researchers. There is a reason for this: Japan’s population is ageing and its birth rate is declining. The country needs to attract people for its basic survival.

One interesting aspect of my visit has been to see how universities are slowly reforming the system to make it more palatable for foreign researchers. The traditional culture at Japanese university departments — at least in physics — is for scientists to be very siloed and specialised. You could argue it has been succesful, just look at how many Nobel prizes have been awarded to Japanese scientists.

But now there is a move to make departments more like their relaxed counterparts in the US and Europe. I took part in a couple of “tea times” where researchers in the department are asked to come together to discuss what they are working on. It is hoped this will boost collaborations and interdisciplinary research.

Barriers still remain for foreigners. One is the language and another is the provision for their spouses and children. Many international schools in the country are out of reach on a researcher’s salary while it is hard for a spouse to often find a job, resulting in isolation.

Yet there are also so many positives. Crime is incredibly low, people are friendly and respectful, the transport system is second to none and the food is incredible, even if it is blighted by the odd pastry.

When I completed my PhD in Germany a decade ago, my supervisor asked whether I would like to do a post-doc in Japan. I thought about it, but came to the conclusion it was a step too far for me.

I wonder whether I would think likewise today.

Author: Michael Banks

UK science writer

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